How to Write Fundraising Appeals That Work

By Jennifer Doak-Mathewson

Declining donor counts, limited resources and shrinking attention spans: These are all challenges development writers face on a daily basisand all reasons we need to rethink traditional approaches to fundraising appeals.

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Basically everyone online now.

It’s time we, as development content creators, challenged ourselves to break free from the expected. If we are going to get a seat at the strategy table, we need to be armed with not just powerful stories, but the data to show which stories work for whom.

Here are four tips to get you started.

Start with the audience. Just because you can send an email to your entire database doesn’t mean you should. If your audience is “all alumni,” you’re doing it wrong. Full stop. While we’re at it, let’s break free of the “alumni from X department should only get appeals for X department’s fund” model, too. Use the data at your disposalwhether that’s Google Analytics, social media metrics and CRM reports or, if you’re lucky, platforms like EverTrue, Marketo or Hubspot. If you’re seeing three groups of people most likely to give to your fund, then you’ll need three different versions of your copy written for them (and that doesn’t mean just throwing in a few extra variable data fields).

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This is what a traditional, non-segmented appeal looks like to your younger alumni.

This can be overwhelming when development shops have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of calls to action (e.g., your funds), so start somewhereand then track everything. Can you segment only for 2018 grads? Prior attendees of an event? People who opened or clicked on your last email? Loyal donors? And if you’re still not sure…

Test. Test, test, test. A/B test print pieces, emails, social adseverything. Use different URLs for print, email, and social, and measure results. Facebook ads are a great testing ground for your messages, since you can create different ad sets with different copy or creative at very little cost. Perform random split tests on print pieces, too. But be sure to only change one variable at a time. Otherwise, you don’t know what made a given segment more successful than another.

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What happens when you test more than one variable.

Be human. Unless you’re writing invitation copy for a fancy gala or stewardship event that demands flowery, “The Board cordially invites its donors” language, you’re not going to get anywhereespecially on digitalby writing things from a vague third-person point of view. Be direct about this person’s role in your story. Instead of “alumni and donors,” just say “you.” Instead of, “A gift to the scholarship fund can do these things,” try, “Because of you, I got the chance of a lifetime.”

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Be human. Unless you’re Sherlock. Then be Sherlock.

You’re not trying to get the attention of another prestigious institution; you’re competing with all the other ads and posts and news headlines that clog up a social timeline. Be real. Address pain points and don’t be afraid of humor. You’re a person. They’re people. Let’s own that.

And speaking of dean’s funds:

Make it relevant. This takes a bit of digging, especially for unrestricted funds. But what is it about the impact of a given fund that would make a gift meaningful? Why should an alumwho in many cases hasn’t set foot on campus or partied in a dorm in 10 or 20 yearspart with their hard-earned money to support your cause instead of the International Sad Puppies Organization or, more seriously, any one of the pressing issues that exist in the headlines?

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Pro tip: You don’t want this reaction.

Craft your message so the impact is felt beyond the borders of your campus. An email sent to a list of 2,000 really good people with a well-crafted, human, personalized message will perform better than a generic scholarship quote sent to 200,000 people.

Jennifer Doak-Mathewson is director of engagement and acquisition at the UConn Foundation.

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adww_sidebar_imagesWant to learn more? Join Jennifer Doak-Mathewson and our cadre talented faculty members at the Annual Development Writing Workshop, Nov. 14-16, 2018, in Boston, Massachusetts.  

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